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Teamwork Adds To “The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnasus” Visual Style

“A Terry Gilliam Film.”  This credit hangs under the title of Gilliam’s latest feature, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasus.”  Those who are familiar with Gilliam think of wildly visual films where a smashed beetle can change the course of one man’s fate (Brazil) or a gonzo journalist’s drug-addled weekend is brought to life through a vivid kaleidoscope of color (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).  “Parnasus” arose from nothing.


“I started the script with a very blank mind,” said Gilliam.  “Charles (McKeown, co-author of the script) and I started throwing ideas around.  As the ideas came in, some stuck around and some did not.”

Gilliam then created storyboards.  Although some reports indicated he story-boarded as he went along, that was not the case.

“The storyboard was created once we got down a reasonable story,” said Gilliam.  “Scenes were altered in the script after the storyboard was put together, but I did not storyboard until the script was completed.”

To assist in creating the world where Dr. Parnasus (Christopher Plummer), destined to an eternal life after a deal made with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), tries to outwit the devil by emersing souls prayed upon by evil into a world of liberating, joyous imagination, Gilliam called upon art director Dave Warren.

“I met Dave Warren years ago,” said Gillian.  “I saw what he did with Dante Faretti on ‘Sweeney Todd’ and I really thought I could elevate him.  I was really sparked by what he does.  We were able to play leap frog with ideas.”

“When I started, he had already put together this presentation book, with key frames from key scenes,” said Warren.  “There are things that Terry loves to do or tinker with in prep and early pre-production.  He does come up with a vision of the movie because he’s got a very visual background.  Going into the art department you’ve got to accept that you are working with a director that can draw very well and he’s very fluent on set.”

Even though Warren was aware of Gilliam’s work and abilities, the transition of obtaining an efficient art direction team collaboration required conditioning.

“I took a slight step back when I first started.  Terry had already put some things down on paper so he knew what this all looked like,” said Warren.  “I started to think, ‘Terry came up with this a while ago.  I can get something a bit more dramatic out of this.  Maybe I’ll try it over the weekend.’  I scribbled and scribbled and came in on Monday presenting him with these sketches to see what he thought.  Gradually, that started to grow on me.  There was nothing that reacted against what he’d done; they were extensions that attained a similar line.”

Warren presented large, black and white pencil drawings to Gilliam, building on the ideas Gilliam crafted in his storyboard.  Not believing in color theory, Gilliam left color application to Warren, reviewing the images until he found something he liked.

“I had a big drawing board and I used to hammer these out on tracing paper, three to four feet across, day after day” said Warren.  “Every now and then, Terry would pull me aside and say ‘What about color, Dave?’  We never sat down and really sorted it out.  We looked at the presentation boards and decided what to leave in, what to take out, and we just ended up with something that he liked.”

To create the mix between contemporary London , an antiquated traveling theater troupe, and the fantasy world’s visitors to the Imaginarium experience, Gilliam wanted the choice of medium to be dictated exclusively as to what was best for the scene.

“I work distinctively with images and ideas.  One thing flows into the next,” said Gilliam.  “I use which ever tool is best to do the job.  Sometimes models are the better way of achieving the look we wanted.”

Influenced by painter Maxfield Parrish, miniatures were built of many Imaginarium scenes, including a gondola on a river, Mr. Nick’s bar, a staircase that leads from the earth to infinity, and a monastery, to name a few.  Gilliam and Warren felt the miniatures best captured the texture needed for the dream-like quality of the Parrish inspired sets.  Warren worked with all creative departments to achieve strong textures to help differentiate themes in the film.

“Initially, all our concept sketches had a finely honed, candy-colored soft environment,” said Warren.  “Contraptions, such as Parnasus’ balloon, are patched and ragged like his costume and his look because they are coming directly from his mind.  The set design is entrenched with millions of cobwebs between the blue screen, the live shoots, and the visual effects.  The costumes are such a restricted color palette: red, black, white.  Behind that, the London skyline is also incredibly textural.  You are always looking at lots and lots of layered colors and bits and pieces.”

Parnasus’ wagon was a bit of texture that Gilliam felt would not feel right as a CG element. The wagon would be used for four weeks in London and close to eight weeks in Canada.  The wagon not only opens up into the performer’s traveling stage, but also had to travel.

“The one wagon has to do everything, like a Swiss army knife,” said Warren.  “I was showing Terry traveling vehicles from circuses in the 19th century and he says ‘ No, I want it to be really tall and odd and slightly midieval, and it’s going to be turned by horses.’  Green or blue screens wouldn’t get the right look.  We had to design it, build it, and dress it.  With this creation we only had to pay for one set.  I had to wear my art director’s technical hat, dealing with tonnage and movement rigs and steel armatures and compressed air and springs.  It was agony to create, but on film it looks great. Terry was over the moon with it.”

In addition to working collaboratively with Gilliam in the role of art director, Warren also remained focused on combining the creative elements with Gilliam’s directorial vision.  Previous collaborations with directors such as Tim Burton and Danny Boyle have given him experience in supporting directors who apply strong stylistic signatures to their films.

“Danny Boyle is a man driven strongly by plot, narrative, stage direction, things like that,” said Warren.  “Tim Burton is a much more quiet type, and he sort of nudges it along.  He’s worked with all sorts of different production designers and he shops around a bit with his ADs.  Yet, Burton ’s movies still look like a Tim Burton movie.  A Terry Gilliam film looks like a Terry Gilliam movie.  Terry is incredibly approachable, and incredibly forthcoming with ideas and all other elements.  They work in such different ways in terms of prep and how they operate on set.  They are just human beings, and what makes it so wonderful is that they are all so different.”

As with Gilliam’s previous movies, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasus” blends stunning visual elements with strong social commentaries.  Warren embraced the challenge of blending classic beauty with the messages Gilliam wanted to include.

“There’s a beautiful river, influences of Egyptian culture and ancient Greece, comedic elements with the different costumes,” said Warren.  “Then we add obviously frightening images, like the cows in the river.  Terry draws a line, making some frightening statements about economic disasters in the film, while still keeping it beautiful.”

“We get the audience on a romantic journey, and then we go from a romantic, beautiful theme to the oil slick and dead animals,” said Gilliam.  “So much of what I do is reactive, relating to what I see happening in the world.  I like to put these statements in my films.”